Old Bedalian 2007

When Zoe Graham and her family moved down from London to Froxfield, it soon became apparent that Bedales would be the ideal place to send her. “Mum was a talented artist and she particularly loved the ethos that she could see at Bedales, so sending me to Dunannie was a bit of an obvious choice,” Zoe recalls. “I loved the place from day one. The school did everything that it could to nurture the love of art that I already had. I particularly remember a teaching assistant called Christina showing me all about water-colours and even when I produced written work, I would add a drawing at the bottom of it! Most teachers enjoyed this, but encouraged me to put as much time into my written work as the illustrations. ”

As she progressed through Dunhurst and into Bedales itself, Zoe worked hard academically. “Being dyslexic, I had regular extra English lessons to help with my academic work and there I was so lucky to have the help of the incredible Sue Mabe", she says. “It was amazing to be taught by this methodical person who really got how my brain worked, I felt she unlocked something in me! I was always a bit anxious about not being as good as the rest of my peers but Sue helped me in a way that has always stayed with me and inspired me.”

The sports field and strong friendship group were particular highlights of Zoe’s time at Bedales. “I loved sport and was fortunate enough to take part in the majority of the team sports that Bedales had to offer,” Zoe remembers. “As for my fellow students, I would say that my best friends today are still those that I made at Bedales. I share a house with Camilla Sadler, for example, and I still regularly see old mates like Imogen Major, Olivia Grant, Carmela Corbett and Olivia Hills. I started boarding at the age of twelve and absolutely adored it. What could be better than to hang out with your friends the whole time, dancing and endlessly chatting?”

The art block, however, was where Zoe was laying the foundations for her future. “I loved textiles and I loved being in the art block,” she says. “In the sixth form, that’s where I would be almost the whole time, where George Hatton and Sarah Oakley were the most fantastic influences on me. I’d set my heart on going to Kingston University to do an Art Foundation course and when I didn’t get in first time, I was so miserable; George was wonderful, told me that it would be their loss and generally made me feel much better about myself. Fashion design was still my ultimate goal.”

Throughout her sixth form years at Bedales, Zoe threw herself into a variety of extra-curricular activities. “I wish that I’d got involved in even more than I did,” she says wistfully. “Music and theatre were things that I loved but although my obvious strengths were in sport and art, when I left Bedales I realised how incredible and unique those opportunities to get involved had been and wished I could have taken advantage of them more at the time. There were a lot of amazingly talented people at Bedales and I suppose that to some extent, I felt a bit intimidated by their ability.”

Instead, Zoe found herself on the Bedales Entertainment Committee, organising rock shows and gaining so much kudos from her peers that she became Head Girl in her 6.2 year: “6.2 was a really busy year, with all the various groups that I was involved in and my A Levels in art, textiles and classical civilisation to think about. I did put a lot of pressure on myself with the role of head girl and wanting to succeed academically, as well as in my extra-curricular life. I had to develop a strong organisational streak to help me out, which was a great life lesson.”

Bedales was my family, a place where being taught was like having numerous parents, all of whom were totally on your side, believed in you and wanted the best for you

 

After the disappointment of her initial rejection by Kingston, Zoe did not waste time in moping, securing herself a place at Camberwell College of Arts. “The vibe there really didn’t appeal to me,” she says. “Like a lot of the London courses, Camberwell was over-subscribed, mainly because colleges knew that a certain proportion of every intake would drop out. I’d been really spoiled at Bedales, where the facilities were brilliant and there was so much support to help you make the most of your talent. In London, you drew wherever you could find space and you worked with teachers who were cold and not all that interested in what you had to offer. I left after a month, before registration, and re-applied to Kingston.”

This time, the response to Zoe’s application would be far more encouraging. “I showed them my portfolio again, which hadn’t changed much since the first time that I’d done it and the guy who was interviewing me loved it,” she remembers. “He told me that the degree course at Kingston was fully subscribed but that he would make sure that I was put right at the top of the waiting list.”

In the meantime, Zoe began to put her artistic talents to wider, more remunerative use by designing and making her own hand, embroidered, tapestry-emblazoned denim jackets. “Mum had taught me how to do tapestry and I started making the jackets with her partly as a thank-you to her and partly to encourage her in her own creative pursuits,” Zoe says. “That year, I wore one of the jackets to the Isle of Wight Festival and it happened to be seen by George Craig, a model and a singer, who really liked the style and persuaded me to start taking the business of making the jackets a bit more seriously. I also got noticed by fashion magazine Nylon and got my first write up in a publication, which lead to more magazines such as Vogue, Elle and NME. ”

Now convinced that she had a business proposition with a future, Zoe decided to set up her own online shop (Jervoise Jackets, after Zoe’s middle name) and scoured vintage shops and suppliers in search of the right denim for her needs. “Artistically, it was a bit scary to put myself out there in the public eye, especially as my designs were quite visually striking and not likely to be everyone’s cup of tea,” she says. “Musicians tended to be particularly keen on them and in those pre-Instagram days, it was through word of mouth that I started to get a bit of attention, which really took off after I arrived at Kingston on my foundation course.”

University would provide Zoe with a completely new set of experiences. “For a lot of people there, it was their first time away from home,” she remembers. “At boarding school, I’d learned how to look after myself so while I enjoyed Kingston, it wasn’t as exciting as Bedales or as much fun. Things were really starting to move with the business at the time as well – I was speaking to Levi’s about a possible collaboration, I was interviewed for Channel 4 and basically, what I was doing was beginning to get attention and interest. In the end, I decided that I needed to make a change and that it was time to leave university and pursue Jervoise as a career. The decision didn’t go down that well with my tutor at Kingston, who, unlike all my Bedales teachers was totally unsupportive and more or less said that I wouldn’t succeed.”

Through the mother of an old Bedales friend, Jamie McIvor, Zoe secured a face-to-face meeting with fashion buyers at Topshop. “Very nerve-racking for me, but they loved what I had to offer. They asked me to look at designing something more suitable for the high street,” she recalls. “I went away, and developed a diffusion line for them and Topshop immediately asked me to run a concession at their flagship Oxford Street branch. I had absolutely no experience of that kind of thing but I had to do it all myself – talk about getting chucked into the deep end! The pop-up month went well with a good sell-through, but Topshop and I parted ways after the first month. It was hard to turn over a profit there and keep to their demanding targets.”

Still undaunted, Zoe, who had by now taken on a PR company to help her, soon found herself in fruitful discussions with Asos.com, the leading UK fashion and beauty online store. “They bought the rest of the stock that I had from selling at Topshop and it did so well for them that they immediately doubled their order with me, buying two seasons,” Zoe explains. “The problem was that by the end of the two seasons, the denim patching that I had been doing for quite a while seemed to be becoming a much wider trend. I was seeing a lot of stuff coming out that looked suspiciously like my designs and high street giants were obviously able to make it a lot cheaper than me.”

Asos themselves were not above producing something similar and Zoe’s confidence duly plummeted. “I got quite depressed,” she admits. “I had always loved customising denim but I was also so keen to design from scratch and I was really excited to produce a brand new autumn/winter collection for Asos, which was very much inspired by the vintage looks. Unfortunately, Asos pulled out at the last minute, they did the same with my new summer collection and eventually I got really disheartened with the reality of the high street fashion industry and felt that I needed to rethink my strategy and career path. I was sick of living on a shoestring, wanted to make a bit of money for myself and decided that fashion styling might be the way forward.”

It so happened that a Bedalian friend of Zoe’s, Leah Mason, had secured a new record deal for herself at around the time that Zoe had decided to change her career path. “Her management asked me to go shopping with her and that’s really where my life as a freelance commercial, celebrity and fashion stylist began,” Zoe reflects. Over the past five years, Zoe has built up an extraordinary track record of success in her industry, acting as a creative director and consultant to a clientele that includes household names such as Ellie Goulding, Gabrielle Aplin and Vertie. Zoe recently went on a world tour with Ellie Goulding, designing her performance looks and day to day styling, whilst also balancing her commercial styling/costume designer work with large brands such as Pantene, Disney, Corona and Dove (see Zoe’s website, www.zoegraham.co.uk). She has also kept her more practical creative side flowing by designing for the jewellers Daisy London and doing artwork and merchandise for the music industry.  

“I love styling and the variety in my work, creating characters commercially and creating more fashion forward looks for musicians. Music has always inspired my work artistically, so it seemed a perfect fit!” Zoe says. “My long-term plan is to go back to the designing eventually, that’s where I feel that the source of my creativity really lies. I’m actually working on a business plan for a sustainable fashion brand, which is something that I really believe in and feel is going to become more important in future years.”

It’s a very Bedalian concept too and Zoe is always happy to join the dots between her school days and her current working life. “Bedales was my family, a place where being taught was like having numerous parents, all of whom were totally on your side, believed in you and wanted the best for you,” she says. “You never had limits put on what you could achieve and I’m so grateful for that and everything else that I learned at school.”

Zoe Graham was interviewed by James Fairweather in 2018